New Vocabularies, New Perspectives
Crossroads Graduate Fellow
On Tuesday, December 13, 2022, The Crossroads Project hosted a webinar entitled "Ethnography and Black Religions.” Moderated by Crossroads Project Director Judith Weisenfeld (Princeton University), the online event convened a dynamic panel of five scholars to discuss how ethnographic approaches further illuminate the diverse landscape of Black religious life. Each of the panelists—Judith Casselberry (Bowdoin College), N. Fadeke Castor (Northeastern University), KB Dennis Meade (Northwestern University), Eziaku Nwokocha (University of Miami), and Todne Thomas (Harvard University)—employ ethnographic approaches to study African diasporic religions in North America and the Caribbean. Drawing upon decades of combined research experience, the panel also shared what the craft of ethnography has taught them about themselves and the importance of Black knowledge production.
At the Crossroads
To begin, the panelists named how their ethnographic research is informed by interdisciplinary approaches. For example, Casselberry situated her scholarship on the religious lives of African American women at the crossroads of Ethnomusicology, Anthropology, and Gender Studies, while Castor cited her background in Cultural Anthropology and Caribbean Studies as the animating force behind her work on religion, race, and decolonization. Dennis Meade outlined her “bricolage approach,” which deploys Religious Studies, Africana Studies, and History in service of her work on transformations in the national politics of Jamaica from the late-nineteenth century to the present. As a scholar of Africana Studies, Religious Studies, and Anthropology, Nwokocha credited her interdisciplinary approach to the mentorship she received from scholars at various academic institutions. Finally, Thomas confessed that, although she “stumbled into” Religious Studies, her scholarly interest in Afro-Caribbean and Afro-diasporic kinship initially found a home in Anthropology.
A Labor of Love
Even though the panelists arrive at the crossroads of ethnography and Black religious studies from different vantage points, they shared the sentiment that ethnographic approaches are not for the faint of heart. As Nwokocha argued, “Labor is intrinsic to ethnographic work.” Dispelling the myth that researching black communities comes “naturally” to black feminist ethnographers, Nwokocha recalled the need to learn additional languages, travel between multiple field sites, and participate in the sacred work tying headwraps for religious ceremonies as part of her ethnographic research for Vodou en Vogue: Fashioning Black Divinities in Haiti and the United States (2023). Similarly, Casselberry explained that research for The Labor of Faith: Gender and Power in Black Apostolic Pentecostalism (2017) required her to learn the intricacies of a religious tradition that was previously unfamiliar to her. From attending multiple church events throughout the week to learning how to dress the part in her “Sunday best,” Casselberry’s ethnographic experiences revealed how much effort is needed for ethnographers to cultivate bonds of intimacy within their research communities—even when ethnographers may share some things in common with their interlocutors.
As Nwokocha argued, “Labor is intrinsic to ethnographic work.”
Continuing the conversation about the rigorous nature of ethnographic work, the panel discussed themes of positionality and disclosure. In other words, how do scholars determine how much of themselves they should bring into ethnographic encounters? Discarding the “objective observer” trope, Dennis Meade described how she leveraged her Caribbean identity and her intimate knowledge of Holiness Pentecostal traditions to establish relationships with her research participants in Jamaica. For Dennis Meade, a scholar’s personal background or “inheritances” can be viewed as an “asset,” rather than a liability. Nwokocha agreed because, in her experience, community members are more receptive to scholars when ethnographers “bring their whole selves” to their ethnographic contexts.
For Dennis Meade, a scholar’s personal background or “inheritances” can be viewed as an “asset,” rather than a liability.
Casselberry offered another perspective. According to Casselberry, “We can’t always bring our full selves. It really depends on where we are, what we’re doing, what’s going to enable us to do the best work we can do.” In her research context, Casselberry was an “insider” in that she, like her research participants, identifies as a Black woman. However, as a religious “outsider,” Casselberry recognized that certain forms of disclosure, such as sharing her about her sexuality, could hinder her ability to build relationships with her interlocutors. To this, Castor added that ethnographers must also be aware of how class differences may complicate a researcher’s standing within their research community.
According to Casselberry, “We can’t always bring our full selves. It really depends on where we are, what we’re doing, what’s going to enable us to do the best work we can do.”
Conducting research for her book, Kincraft: The Making of Black Evangelical Sociality (2021), taught Thomas about some of the “hidden intersections and assumptions” undergirding ethnographic approaches. In particular, Thomas noted that the demands ethnographic research places on a scholar’s time, finances, and family can present significant challenges. Her observation raises questions about “what kind of person, what kinds of flexibilities, [and] what kinds of support” make ethnographic research (im)possible for scholars in certain stages of their careers. Thomas’s concerns thus invite further discussion regarding how academic institutions can better support ethnographers and their projects.
On Writing Ethnographies
While it may feel as though an ethnographer’s work is never complete, all good things indeed must come to an end. So, how does an ethnographer discern when their work is done? First, Thomas encouraged students and scholars alike to remember that “the end of a book doesn’t have to be the end of your research on it.” There will always be more to learn about a given religious community. Later, Castor exhorted scholars to engage in the art of “writing with spirit”—a practice that resonated with many of the panelists. For Castor, to write with spirit is to, at times, move beyond the constraints of western ways of knowing and to recognize the spirits “as active subjects and agents.” For some panelists, following guidance from dreams, the spirits, and living research participants helped them know when a research project was complete.
Castor exhorted scholars to engage in the art of “writing with spirit”—a practice that resonated with many of the panelists.
As the event drew to a close, panelists provided thoughtful responses to a question posed by an audience member: How do you honor the communities that you study? Nwokocha encouraged scholars to consider how they might make their scholarship more accessible to the communities they study. For example, Nwokocha hopes that her book can be translated into Haitian Kreyòl so that her Haitian interlocutors can learn from her work. Casselberry and Castor asserted that scholars honor the communities they study by taking seriously the frameworks and terms that religious actors use to characterize their spiritual lives—even when doing so may complicate some of the conceptual tools that typically dominate the field of religious studies.
While doing her research, Casselberry found that the scholarly category of “belief,” which often reduces “religion” to a mere act of the mind, was inadequate for describing the embodied material and spiritual labor performed by her research participants. Similarly, in her ethnographic study, Spiritual Citizenship: Transnational Pathways from Black Power to Ifá (2017), Castor found that even the category of “religion” needed to be reconsidered. For Castor’s interlocutors, Ifá/Orisha practices did not constitute a “religion,” but rather, a “way of life” that contributed to Black liberation. From Casselberry and Castor, we see that the field of (Black) religious studies has much to learn from the insights of religious practitioners.
Black women ethnographers are continually engaged in the practice of “method-making and speaking back to method,” to quote Thomas.
The future of ethnography remains to be seen. However, what is clear is that black women ethnographers are continually engaged in the practice of “method-making and speaking back to method,” to quote Thomas. Through their labor of love, black women ethnographers provide Black religious studies with new vocabularies, new perspectives, and new ways of reflecting upon the vibrancy of Black religious life.